The folks at Marvel didn’t invent Spider-Woman to trade on the popularity of Spider-Man. In fact it was because some competitors wanted to trade on it by making a knock-off female character, and to prevent this, Marvel beat them to it. Having created Spider-Woman, though, they decided to give the character every chance to succeed on her own terms. And that’s why, even though Spider-Man had regular team-ups with all sorts of Marvel characters – he even had his own book for just that purpose – he didn’t have a joint appearance with Spider-Woman for some time. Twenty issues, in fact.
Which brings us to issue #20, “Tangled Webs.”
Jessica stares down at her bed, where she sees her Spider-Woman mask and a few wads of cash. “What have I done?” she thinks.
Yeah, it’s a classic Spider-Woman trick: open with an exciting scene later in the story.
Good thing, because chronologically this story is pretty dull. It starts with Jessica being laid off from her receptionist job. With Adrienne “Nekra” Hatros out of the picture, the Hatros Clinic has had a change of management, and it seems Jessica is now surplus to requirement. Worse, she’s not going to be paid her back wages, because the new management is going to use them to defray the cost of her therapy.
Back at home, Jessica has also been evicted because she failed to renew her lease. Which is odd, because she’s been subletting from Jerry Hunt. Huh. Oh well, the point is, Jess has lost her job and is about to lose her home (again). She toys with the idea of crashing on Lindsay McCabe’s couch, but “no! I’m tired of being a victim!”
Accordingly, that night she changes into her costume and breaks into the clinic. For whatever reason, she knows the combination to the safe where she keeps the petty cash. She grabs $300, which she reckons to be about what she’s owed in back wages, and returns home, where she has the moment of clarity we saw on the opening page. Realizing that she acted too hastily, she resolves to give the money back. “Sure, I deserve that money, but I could rationalize an excuse for just about anything I did. I don’t want to be like all those others costumed crazies I’m always running into… willing to do anything for personal gain. I should be better than that.”
Her timing is poor, because at the same time she’s breaking back into the Clinic, a team of journalists from New York is visiting the Clinic to further a story on advances in psychological research. I don’t know why they’re doing this visit so late at night, but there you are. One of them, the photographer, is distracted from the boring proceedings by his sense that “something weird is going on around here.” Leaving the interview he’s sitting in on, he ventures into the petty-cash room, where he sees Spider-Woman opening the safe. She wheels about and zaps him with a venom-blast, and down he goes. Determined to get away from the scene of the crime, Jess flies off into the night.
But it won’t be that easy, because the photographer’s name is Peter Parker, who moonlights as the amazing Spider-Man. While his spider-sense warned him about the robbery, and the fact that Jessica was about to venom-blast him, he couldn’t dodge with his spider-agility without endangering his secret identity. But now his spider-metabolism allows him to quickly shake off the effects of the venom blast, and he’s able to change into his own costume and pursue Jessica.
In an interesting twist, neither recognizes the other. Peter doesn’t follow the superhero scene outside New York, and Jessica doesn’t follow the scene at all.
Peter’s pursuit is hampered by the fact that L.A. has few tall buildings, which makes web-slinging more difficult. The delay allows him time to study his quarry, enough to realize that she’s not really flying, but gliding. Accordingly, he spins a web (any size) between two buildings, forcing Jessica to pull up sharply. She retaliates with a venom blast, but this time Peter can bust out the spider-agility and dodge. Unsure what she’s dealing with, Jess wall-crawls (wall-runs, really) up to the roof, but Peter can do that too. She tries to scare him off with a display of spider-strength: she uproots a chimney and topples it towards his direction. (“My spider-strength doesn’t seem what it used to be. Wonder what’s wrong with me?”) Of course, Peter catches it without difficulty. “He’s far stronger than I!” Jess realizes. “Who are you?” she cries. “What do you want from me?”
“You don’t know who I am, lady? I’m going to have to hire a press agent out here! Ma’am, you’re looking at your friendly coast-to-coast Spider-Man!”
Stunned, Jessica wonders if Peter is a refugee from Wundagore, like she is. This is a perfect opportunity for her to rehearse her origin and the recent issues of her comic book in a two-page spread, for the benefit of any casual readers in 1979 who might be picking up the book for the first time. Having done that, she kicks Spidey in the face and tries to glide away. He leaps after her and tries to snag her with a webline, but only succeeds in snaring her boot, which pulls right off of her foot. This is bad news, because Peter is now falling to the street. In New York, he could just send out a webline and swing out of his dive, but here in L.A. the buildings are so low, there’s nothing to break his fall until he hits the street.
Horrified that she might have killed him, Jess swoops in and grabs Peter before he suffers a fatal impact. Having saved him, she surrenders to him, offering up her wrists to be cuffed (?). Spider-Man, surprised, asks for an explanation, which Jessica provides: she was simply returning money that “a friend” had taken, which she really had been owed in any case. Peter is sympathetic; he’s been in difficult situations himself. He commiserates that “I must have had enough grief… to last five lifetimes… but through it all, I’ve never really given up. Just when I thougth that I couldn’t take any more the world could dish out, I learned that I could. And eventually, things always got better.”
Realizing he’s got to get back to the clinic, he swings away. “You mean you’re not going to take me to jail?”
“Nah. You remind me too much of myself. I believe you’re basically okay. Take care, lady!”
And then, as they both depart, Peter realizes he never asked her her name…
Ho-hum. This issue has two aims. Firstly, to clear the decks of previous Spider-Woman continuity for the benefit of the new writer coming aboard next issue. Secondly, to find new readers for the book by capitalizing on Spider-Man’s popularity. And it achieves both, yes.
We get rid of Jessica’s apartment, her last tie to Jerry Hunt and the old Wolfman continuity. We get rid of the Hatros Institute, Jessica’s receptionist job, and her therapy sessions, which were current writer Mark Gruenwald's additions (although actually the group therapy was deep-sixed last issue.) And we have the obligatory Spider-Man team-up, which permits a recap of Jessica’s origin and a comparison of their respective powers.
The only interesting bit in all of this is the off-hand reference to Jessica’s spider-strength being weaker than it used to be, far weaker than Spider-Man’s. I’m not sure what that was about. It could be laying the groundwork for future plot developments. There will be future plot twists regarding Jessica’s powers, but other writers will implement them: I doubt Gruenwald is doing them any favours here. It seems more likely to me that this reduction in Jessica’s strength is an attempt to bring them into some sort of parity with Spider-Man’s. Yes, she’s got his wall-crawling ability, and his spider-agility: but she also has flight and venom-blasts while all he’s got is webbing and spider-sense. If you’re keeping score at home, it may seem to you that Spider-Woman comes out ahead. Maybe it seemed that way to Marvel, and so they reduced Spider-Woman’s strength to make it come out even. That’s how I read the “he’s much stronger than me!” comment, at any rate.
The best adjective for this issue is “workmanlike.” The job gets done but without panache. Mark Gruenwald’s writing is prosaic and Frank Springer’s artwork is rushed and cramped. That said, Springer’s artwork is better than Carmine Infantino’s on those days when Infantino was phoning it in. And I can’t be too hard on Gruenwald, given that he knew he was leaving the book. It’s hard to maintain labour discipline in those conditions.
Still, as generous as I would like to be, this issue has all the charm of a checked-off grocery list. Two webs.